Blackhawks Back to Even and On the Way Home
Don't tell the Chicago Blackhawks this was supposed to be the Detroit Red Wings' rebuilding year.
The Wings almost rebuilt themselves to a second consecutive Stanley Cup playoff series upset before the Blackhawks battled back to all-square in what was a three-games-to-one series deficit by edging Detroit at the Joe, 4-3, in Game 6 last night.
The record-setting President's Cup winners are being stretched to the limits by a seventh-seeded team making the transition from Niklas Lidström's storied career to the prime of Henrik Zetterberg's and the ascent of Niklas Kronwall's.
Of course, the Red Wings are more than Sweden West, but the Tre Kronor contingent still commands a dominant segment of Detroit's roster (eight of them). Perhaps it helps that the Swedish national system teaches a continuity of style from Kiruna in the far north to Malmö in the deep south so the players are totally au fait with each other when they come together for international competitions. Whatever the reason, the Red Wings' adjustments for this season have been more seamless than most had thought.
In this lockout-shortened sprint of a season, Anaheim's only real separation from Chicago was the Hawks' run of consecutive points. The stage appeared set for a mighty clash in the Western Conference finals, until Detroit derailed them with, among other things, a risen-from-the-grave power play that converted close to 25% of the time (compared to 14.9% during the regular season) and a series of thundering hits from Kronwall and the likes of Michigan's Justin Abdelkader.
Serious spotlight time has been reclaimed by captain Jonathan Toews, who has both harnessed his emotions and shaken loose of his defenders in the last two games to spearhead the two vital victories that have kept Chicago's magical season going. The turnabout in his fortunes has led some to wonder if Pavel Datsyuk got dinged up somewhere in Game 4 or 5; his usually-stellar defensive game has clearly been diminished to Toews' advantage.
Detroit entered the fateful third period last night with a 2-1 lead, but it was quickly erased one minute later when Michael Handzus potted a nifty feed by one of Chicago's Swedes, Niklas Hjälmarsson (attention NBC broadcast crew, it's pronounced YELL-mur-soon; if the CBC can actually get it right, you dudes have no excuse!). Brian Bickell then stepped up five minutes later to finish a Toews-Marian Hossa build-up, and the Blackhawks had the advantage.
Then came the play that capped the evening's proceedings.
Michael Frolik collected a blocked shot and sped forth on a breakaway that was stunted -- ever so slightly -- by Carlo Colaiacovo's sweeping slash. Just as there's a unique strike zone for each umpire in baseball, every referee has his own version of slashing. In this case, the puck was definitely separated from Frolik's stick, and the official's arm went up. Contact was made just under Frolik's hands, which is probably why the penalty shot was awarded.
Technically, the call was correct. In context, that sort of play has been allowed all series long, as it usually is in this and every season. Having said that, Rule One in any sport is not to put a game in an official's hands. Here, Frolik netted a first-class backhand past Jimmy Howard, and the debate on the call was underway.
Detroit recovered a late goal, but the padding provided by the penalty shot was sufficient for a 4-3 Chicago win and a trip back to the Second City for what will surely be an explosive Game 7.